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I was lucky enough to start my translation career just over 30 years ago in a civil service organisation in Northern England and as such benefited from a host of perks such as generous flexitime, a typing pool to type up and format our work, in-house expertise on tap, extra holiday on the Queen’s birthday (!) and of course a fixed salary. We did most of the translations in-house, but there were languages we couldn’t handle and occasionally we were too overloaded to handle all our own languages in the office either. For such cases we used a panel of staff members with excellent language skills (and an expert knowledge of the subject area – very useful!) and, as a last resort, we outsourced to freelancers, and very occasionally to agencies. As a civil service outfit, we had access to what were known as treasury rates, which set out detailed guidelines for acceptable translation rates. These covered standard, technical and highly technical texts (although we only ever charged the highly technical rates due to the nature of the business), and also urgency surcharges, which were set in stone as 15% for translations required within one week, 25% for translations required within 4 days and 35% for jobs required within 2 days. These deadlines excluded delivery times of course, as this was in the days before e-mail and even before fax machines, so everything, bar the odd telex, went by post – or foot!

When I left on maternity leave some 5 years later and carried on working freelance for my previous employers, it was second nature to carry on with this charging structure. I never thought anything of it, to be honest. As my sons grew older I took on a couple more clients, usually related civil service companies, and the rate system continued. It was only when I was approached by my first agency, referred by a former colleague, in the mid-1990’s, that I realised this wasn’t how everybody operated! That said, if I could, I maintained my charging structure and applied urgent rates – and most of my clients have been happy with this. If they weren’t, it was up to me to decide whether I wanted to accept the job without a premium and if not, to decline it.

What has driven me to review this practice is my recent experience of submitting tenders to a number of clients. I’ve been asked to tender three times over recent months – a bloggable subject in its own right! – in each case for clients I’ve already been working for over many years. The first time I came to draw up my tender, something I’d never really done before, was for another civil service organisation for which I had always applied my urgent rates. The very act of taking stock and deciding how to handle this “unknown quantity” of tendering made me wonder whether I should reconsider the fixed urgency charges: after all, 35% extra for a 500-word job required the next day is perhaps no longer as big a deal as it would have been back in the 80’s when the rates were drawn up…. By the same token 35% for a 5000-word text required on the same basis is by no means unreasonable. I was aware that the client, although happy to pay the charges in very urgent cases, was always careful to avoid them if they could. After much consideration and a chat with my contacts, I decided to offer them a choice: I would either continue with the status quo, with a graduated scale of urgency surcharges, or increase my rates overall to a fixed rate somewhere between the 25% and 35% urgency rates – bearing in mind that most of the jobs I’d done for this client over the previous six months had been urgent…. I’m delighted to say my tender was successful, with the client opting for the second option, without urgency charges.

In another tender, this time for an international direct client, the rates spreadsheet submitted for translators to complete actually included a box for urgency surcharges and defined what they classed as urgent: more than 2,500 words in a 24-hour period for any one translator. Again, that seems eminently reasonable and as such I put forward a 25% surcharge on my standard rates for this client for urgent jobs. I’ve yet to hear the outcome of that one, however.

The final tender specifically asked whether urgency rates would apply for work overnight or at weekends – and I confirmed that they certainly would! This particular (agency) client has always been happy to offer generous deadlines in the past, so the question of urgency charges has never reared its head, but it’s always good to be covered for any eventuality.

So what does this mean for my rates overall? Well, my take is that I’m happy with my standard rates as a general rule, for work that fits in with my standard working hours. If a client offers me a job, I suggest a deadline that fits in with what I can comfortably achieve (and the rest of my usually packed schedule!). If they want a job more quickly, I can either fit it in, or I can’t, so adding an urgency rate isn’t going to change anything! That said, if I were to receive a request on a subject I enjoy translating at the end of a business day, required the following morning, or on a Friday evening, for delivery Monday, I just might consider taking on the job – but I would certainly want to charge a premium for giving up my precious leisure time. Most agencies I deal with are quite happy with that and often suggest a weekend or overnight surcharge upfront. If they specifically want me to translate a text, it is going to be worth their while paying the extra. I occasionally outsource work for my previous employer and I apply urgency surcharges on the same basis; if I’m expecting a colleague to give up their weekend, I feel they ought to be remunerated accordingly!

Different translators work at different speeds, and indeed the speed at which we work can vary according to the text at hand. I can translate 5-6,000 words a day on certain types of text I’m very familiar with (thank you, Dragon!), whereas other texts might take much longer, but I feel it’s up to me to juggle what I can accommodate in any given week. I don’t think it’s appropriate to necessarily reward or penalise people for the speed at which they work, BUT it is up to each translator to recognise their own limitations. From an agency’s point of view, it’s obviously great to work with a translator who can process large volumes at speed, providing the quality is retained, but one person’s definition of an urgent job might not be another’s….

In today’s fast-paced world we do have access to technology, be it CAT tools, or voice recognition software, to help us process much larger volumes than were previously possible, and of course we can return work at the touch of a button, but that doesn’t mean we should be forced to work outside our comfort zone. The bottom line is to make sure that your rates are set at an acceptable level in the first place, and only accept jobs that you really WANT to do. It’s up to you whether you forego that weekend in the garden, night out with friends or your yoga class. But if you’re going to give up what you like doing, perhaps you should consider charging extra? If they say no, hey, you can kick back and enjoy your weekend off after all…